Stair master: David Marshall brings the old country to new construction

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A staircase by David Marshall of Albion Cabinets. Photo: Courtesy David Marshall A staircase by David Marshall of Albion Cabinets. Photo: Courtesy David Marshall

There are two ways to explain how David Marshall got into the carpentry business—the short answer (“I worked on building sites for many years as a carpenter until my last boss (in 1994) recommended I go into business for myself,” Marshall said) and the long answer, which is a bit more complicated. A native of England, Marshall learned old-fashioned carpentry in school and loved it. His teacher was “strict and exacting,” but passed on a passion for the craft of woodworking without the aid of portable power tools.

“Boards were planed by hand, joints including dovetails were cut with hand saws and tweaked to precision with chisels,” Marshall said. “Good joinery required careful planning, the ability to visualize the end product, and, most of all, brought out the beauty of the wood itself.”

Marshall and his family (his American wife and four young children) moved to Iowa and he started working on building sites when the farming economy tanked. After four years at that, they moved again—this time to Charlottesville. Marshall worked for McRaven Restorations, Shelter Associates, and Blue Mountain Builders, gaining experience in the trade before opening Albion Cabinets and Stairs in 1994. He hasn’t looked back. As Marshall put it, “There’s not much finer than the feel of smooth wood.”

Photo: Christian Hommel
Photo: Christian Hommel

Describe your aesthetic in five words or less. 

Creative woodwork: combining craft and character.

Where do you stand on form versus function? 

About in the middle. Everything we build has function—we spend time with our customers trying to achieve the best possible function for their needs. In the case of stairs the engineering also has to work—we have to pay attention to load-bearing. But pleasing appearance and proportion is vital too. We try to combine the two. My taste tends towards simplicity where functionality has its own beauty.

What would you say is your “specialty”? 

I have made building all-wood spiral stairs my specialty, though it only occasionally gets put into practice. A sturdy but good looking spiral stair is a small feat of engineering and tight woodwork and always looks very striking. My favorite example is a walnut spiral with a “skirt” around the perimeter that we built for a local home where none of the joinery is visible.

What’s the favorite thing you ever made? 

A cherry lectern for a local church which has three curving legs. It won a first place design award (Innovative Design Excellence Award—IDEA) from Wood Digest in 2008. It was an original design which had to stylistically match an original table I had built earlier and had to combine elegance and function.

What’s the first thing you ever made? 

A small step ladder for my mother’s larder which also had a storage compartment for bags. She felt safe climbing to the highest shelves. It took a whole school term to design and build.

What’s the process like for creating a new piece for a client? 

I enjoy collaborating with each customer to develop exactly what they have in mind—or may only vaguely have in mind at the beginning. There is a necessary process of discussion, seeing and measuring the space, getting style ideas from photos or existing pieces and then trying to get that all captured in drawings which can be used to build the end product. Since finishing is also so important we often spend time preparing samples which can be stained, painted, oiled or varnished to get the right effect.

What are some other important details about your business? 

We now have a spacious shop in Earlysville where we make almost anything that can be made of wood. All our work is custom—working through architects, builders, or directly with customers on individual projects.

The principal craftsman in the business is now my son, Henry, who has worked at Albion for 12 years and has become highly skilled himself. We’re small—three full-time employees—which enables us to keep on top of the all important details of each job. It’s still hugely fulfilling to be able to build what our customers want, to make their homes more functional and beautiful. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.

Get in touch

Have a project in mind for Albion Cabinet? Visit albioncabinets.com or call 974-4611.

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